Muslims from France train in Pakistan

Officials are probing whether the Frenchman who killed seven last week was one of them.

Posted: March 25, 2012

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan - Dozens of French Muslims are training with the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, raising fears of future attacks after the shooting deaths of seven people in southern France, allegedly by a man who spent time in the region, Pakistani intelligence officials said Saturday.

Authorities are investigating whether Mohamed Merah, the Frenchman of Algerian descent suspected of killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three French paratroopers in Toulouse this month, was among the training group, the officials said.

Merah was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff at his apartment in Toulouse. The 23-year-old former auto-body worker traveled twice to Afghanistan in 2010 and to Pakistan in 2011, and said he trained with al-Qaeda in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan.

About 85 Frenchmen have been training with the Pakistani Taliban in the North Waziristan tribal area for the last three years, according to the intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Most of the men have dual nationality with France and North African countries.

The Frenchmen operate under the name Jihad-e-Islami and are being trained to use explosives and other weapons at camps near the town of Miran Shah and in the Datta Khel area, the officials said. They are led by a French commander who goes by the name Abu Tarek. Five of the men returned to France in January 2011 to find new recruits, according to the officials. It's unclear whether Merah was among that group.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised a crackdown on French citizens found to have trained in terror camps abroad.

"Anyone who goes abroad to follow ideological courses that lead to terrorism will be criminally punished. The response will be prison," he said in a campaign speech Saturday.

A senior French official close to the investigation into the shootings said Friday that despite Merah's claims of al-Qaeda links, there was no sign he had "trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists."

A militant commander, Ahmed Marwat, claimed in a phone call on Saturday that Merah was affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan, but he provided no details. Marwat said he was part of the Jundullah wing of the Pakistani Taliban.

That claim could not be independently verified.

The Pakistani Taliban, which is closely allied with al-Qaeda, has carried out hundreds of attacks in Pakistan over the last several years that have killed thousands of people.

Western officials have been concerned for years about Muslim militants with European citizenship visiting northwestern Pakistan and possibly training for missions that could include terror attacks in Europe, where they would act as "lone wolves" or on the orders of others. In 2010 alone, dozens were believed to be there.

Merah told police during the standoff he was trained "by a single person" when he was in Waziristan, not in a training center, so as not to be singled out because he spoke French, the director of the DCRI intelligence service, Bernard Squarcini, told the Le Monde newspaper.

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